Originally posted on Fox Sports Tennessee  |  Last updated 10/28/11
By Danny Parker For FoxSportsTennessee.com KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Perhaps the simplest way of looking at the rebuilding job facing Tennessee coach Derek Dooley when he left Louisiana Tech for Tennessee in January 2010 is as though he's taking over an expansion franchise or a school fresh off a back-breaking probation. Weaving through the gauntlet that is a Southeastern Conference schedule makes Dooley's uphill climb that much more daunting. Try doing it with six freshmen in the starting lineup. That's how many the Volunteers will have when they play South Carolina on Saturday at Neyland Stadium: left guard Marcus Jackson, quarterback Justin Worley, puntkick returner Devrin Young, Sam linebacker Curt Maggitt, Will linebacker A.J. Johnson and free safety Brian Randolph. At 3-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC, the Vols have to put the best players on the field and hope for the best. If they're 18, then so be it. Several have responded and already exceled in spite of the quantum leap they've taken from having been playing on the high school level this time a year ago. "It's hard on these freshmen," Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. "Playing in the SEC as a true freshman and getting used to it is tough. That's what makes guys like A.J. Johnson special. A.J. is bulletproof, just keeps on going. He's hard, rugged, strong. It takes some getting used to, especially in the trenches." Johnson appears to be getting better as the season goes, earning SEC Freshman of the Week after registering 13 tackles against No. 2 Alabama, which was the second-most by a true freshman in school history. The Gainesville, Ga., native leads all SEC freshmen in tackles (45). "I liked that he was athletic," linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said of what he saw in Johnson while in high school. "I liked that he could play multiple positions. I liked that he was always running the football. When you play Wildcat quarterback for your team and you are 6-foot-2, 250 and you make 17-18 tackles a game and the coach doesn't let you off the field, that is a good sign." Worley appeared headed toward a redshirt before getting some snaps late in the 37-6 loss in Tuscaloosa. "I just feel like for us to go out and try to win games, we are not throwing and catching the way we need to and we're not calling the game the way we want to," said Dooley, whose team doesn't have a passing touchdown in 13 quarters. "We just need to make this move. It's not something that is done on a whim. We have a lot of data to make a switch. We don't have a lot of data on Justin." At Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C., Worley earned Gatorade National Player of the Year his senior season. He finished his career with 13,383 yards and 157 touchdowns before enrolling at UT in January. "He has gotten to the point now where he feels comfortable under the center and he understands what he needs to do in a Pro-Style offense," Vol quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. "That is why he came to Tennessee and that is why quarterbacks come here, because you get to run a pro-style offense and you get the opportunity to play exactly like 19 of the NFL teams. That's why you come to Tennessee. He is learning. He has done a great job preparing himself." After being moved from center to left guard, sophomore James Stone was penalized twice against Alabama for false start. The staff inserted Jackson and the Vero Beach, Fla., native is going to get a chance to hold onto the spot. While Johnson and Maggitt both earned starting jobs at linebacker back in preseason camp, Randolph has come on only more recently and his showing a high football IQ. "You tell (Randolph) something once and he's got it," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "In terms of knowing everything, he's on par with the rest of the guys. He doesn't by any means, know it all, but he listens. Once you tell him it once, he's got it." Young, a Knoxville native, broke a bone in his shoulder during the summer and stalled his progress. This Saturday will be just his fifth game healthy, but he is already third on the team in all-purpose yards (497). Other freshmen, including tailback Marlin Lane and cornerback Justin Coleman, are knocking on the door. Coleman actually started the first two games before a lack of production cost him his spot. The Brunswick (Ga.) High School standout is slowly working his way back to field duty. "I think (Coleman) has his feet underneath him and has his breath back a little bit," Wilcox said. "Early in the season, he had a couple of tough games there, but he's battled through practice. He's earned his reps through practice and that's how you have to do it. We are not down on Justin at all. I expect him to go in there and compete well." The Tennessee coaches as a whole aren't trying to set records with infiltrating the starting lineup with teenagers. The goal is simply to win. Thompson has been coaching on this level since the late 80s. He can't say if this is the youngest unit he's helped put on the field, but that's beside the point. "I don't recall, but really, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who's playing or what year they are," he said. "They've just got to go out there and do their job to the best of their ability, execute within the framework of the defense, give great effort, play with toughness. It will come. They'll develop and they'll be fine. We're making some strides for short periods of time. We've got to learn to finish the game and play for 60 minutes."
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